Skip to main content
  • Anonymity

XLeap - The Power of Anonymity

Participants share and listen

The power of anonymity

XLeap provides and advocates anonymity in meetings. Nothing is more effective in enabling full disclosure and minimizing personal prejudice.

Again, and again this advocacy meets with a 'yes, but' objection citing organizational culture and values, as in "Yes, we can see that anonymity may be useful, but we here have an open culture; nobody needs to be afraid to speak their mind."

This cultural objection misses the issue.

Swimming against the stream

Anonymity is about people in meetings - not culture or values

While an open culture is undoubtedly a good thing, this 'cultural objection' against the use of anonymity misses the mark on several accounts.

Small team in conversation

First, fear of retribution by the hierarchy is not the only and almost certainly not the most important factor which prevents people from sharing what they know or do not know or truly think in meetings. Loyalties, favors owed, fear of ridicule and plain introversion can have the same effect.

Second and just as important, something being shared does not mean it gets heard. Unconscious personal, departmental, and tribal bias can prevent important news and excellent ideas from even registering, simply because the 'wrong' person said them.

Third, meetings are very different from regular conversations we have with our colleagues. The behavior and strategies which work well in a conversation, such as inferring much of what is left unsaid from knowing our colleague well, a confirmative look in the eye, body language and a nod that confirms that our message has landed, all fail with 5 or more people in the 'room'.

Which is why, regardless of their organization’s culture, most people feel that they somehow underperform in traditional meetings. It is also why, regardless of their broader benefits, over the decades, cultural change programs have largely failed to improve meetings.

Social outcomes trump objective outcomes

Above all else, meetings are social occasions. The situation is less clear cut, and the stakes are significantly higher than in a 'normal' conversation between colleagues. We can shine in front of a lot of people, but we can also make fools of ourselves. The latter is quite possible, since we are not totally certain about most things and it is quite likely that some participants may know more than we do. The stakes rise with the number of people involved and things already get complicated with as few as five people around the table. It becomes almost impossible to judge by non-verbal clues whether or not they have 'got' our point, understood what we mean. In online meetings, only the foolhardy imagine they have a chance to 'read' the group. So, better rephrase our point again, just to be sure. Add a few caveats? After all, it may not be our turn to speak again before things have moved on.

Plenty of reasons not to share honestly

In an inherently risky situation, such as a meeting, some by their nature feel compelled to go for glory and play to the gallery. Others will overcome their reservations, take the risk, and say what they think, because of a sense of duty or because they have a stake in the outcome. Most will play it safe. Say something unobjectionable. Avoid criticism as not to be criticized. If they must say something, why not simply agree with the statement our colleague just made? Regrettably, if understandably, many experts, researchers, and engineers - people who know things - fall into this last category.

In meetings, social outcomes routinely trump objective outcomes. This comes at a considerable price not just for the organization. Most participants, despite giving priority to their feeling of self-worth and social status, would very much like to contribute fully, judge things on merit and win as team. If only they could!

Anonymity changes the game

Anonymity changes the game by eliminating the social element for as long as it takes to have that open group conversation, to be at our best and get to the results we know we can produce.

With XLeap, participants can contribute when they have something to say or ask, instead of waiting their turn. Anonymity is about the quality of such contributions and the willingness to volunteer them, as in: "If they think the idea stupid (or otherwise objectionable), they won’t know it was me."

Just as importantly, anonymity is about letting participants judge what is ‘said’ on its merits: If people do not know who it is from, they cannot close their ears and mind the very moment that wrong person draws breath. They cannot and therefore need not waste time and attention on guessing the speaker’s motivation and hidden agenda. Instead, they can focus on the merit of what is actually being said.

Bias prevents a fair hearing
Willingness to share and to listen are mutually reinforcing

Saying what you know and think and getting a fair hearing for what you say are equally essential for a discussion to go anywhere. Sharing honestly and getting heard are mutually reinforcing:

  1. If what I say will get a fair hearing, it is worth my effort to share and make myself understood.
  2. If I am free to support or challenge an idea (or concept, fact, suggestion, opinion, question), it is probably worth my trying to understand it.

The upshot is relevance: Relevant facts (opinions, etc.) get shared and are discussed by relevant criteria, not who said it. This saves time, drives engagement, and delivers results.

While less important than it would be when speaking in turn, it should be mentioned that anonymity also takes care of several other eternal irritants of meetings, such as the

  • Narcissists: only they can hear themselves talking.
  • Dominators: they also must resort to the merit of their argument.
  • Repeaters: echoing other people’s opinions just to say something becomes pointless.

Won't anonymity encourage trolling?

With anonymity, cheap shots targeting individuals are extremely rare. Attacks on a person aiming to discredit a position or statement simply will not work if the link between contribution and contributor does not exist. For the same reason, there is no point in rubbishing a contribution just to get at the contributor.

Groups 'get' this immediately. Perhaps surprisingly, groups who have internal conflict and are at odds with each other benefit most obviously. They welcome the chance to step outside what has become a toxic social dance and achieve something worthwhile together. After all, most people enjoy getting beyond their grudges and following their better instincts.

Fortunately, technically enforced anonymity is available on demand. It becomes even more powerful over time as trust in the new meeting paradigm becomes complete. Very quickly, anonymity, and, indeed, the use of XLeap, are understood to signal, "this is now about the subject at hand and what you really think about it".

Will XLeap change our culture?

Probably, but not that much. Participants of an XLeap session will – for good or bad – return to their usual behavior once anonymity has been turned off again. Albeit with one big difference: The facts and opinions are now on the table as are counter arguments and questions, some of which may still wait for an answer.

These ideas, facts, arguments, and open questions can now be dealt with. Even better, even people who did not attend the session can trust that everything could be shared, and all questions asked. This tends to increase the general level of trust in an organization.

The need for verification

The price for people saying what they truly think and reduced personal and departmental bias is not knowing who said it. This price is almost always well worth paying but it means that we cannot judge the trustworthiness of the information by the reputation and ‘standing’ of its contributor.

Fortunately, there are other ways of verification.

Manager standing

Verification by the group. To convince anyone, anonymous contributions must be plausible. Anything less invites skeptical questions such as, "Hard to believe. Please give an example!" which are so much easier to ask anonymously: Where an oral challenge would require a stomach for confrontation, doubt is all participants need to ask for corroboration anonymously.  

Another means of verification by the group is rating. The Rating workspace allows for the quick assessment of many items on one or several criteria such as 'Importance', 'Urgency' or 'Effectiveness'. Since things which are not true cannot be, for instance, important, rating on such a criterion identifies within minutes what participants believe to be fact AND important.

Verification by someone you trust. Once anonymity has done its job of flushing out what is relevant one can return to more traditional ways of communication. Simply ask your most trusted source something like, "Jim, what do you make of this? Can we make our decision on this basis?" This can be in the session or after, ideally in a conversation with no more than 3 participants where Jim and Jane can be candid, and answers can be followed up with further questions.

For such a conversation, Jane and Jim need not even have attended the session. The automatic verbatim session report will put all the information before them.

Managers discussing business matters